My fiance and I are planning on having children in the near future. He has ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder — multiple personalities if you will. Right now, it’s just me, him, and my sister who know.
We’re wondering: how exactly do you tell your kid about your personality disorder? They’re going to notice, probably before we tell them. We won’t keep it a secret but how on earth do you tell them? — Sarah
I’m coming from the child’s perspective, since my mom is diagnosed with bipolar disorder (and has been since her late teens). I actually don’t remember ever not knowing, really, and I think that went a long way towards de-stigmatizing it. In contrast, I remember the divorce talk vividly, since my parents treated it as a big reveal one night when I was 6. That’s fine and works for a life-changing event like that. But since mental illness is a part of you, I think it’s better to treat it as you would any other chronic condition. “Oh, time to visit the therapist/take my pills/etc.” I think that actually went a long way towards shaping my reactions to friends who discovered they had depression or bipolar disorder and then quietly confided in me, and I think they were reassured by my reaction that it’s actually pretty normal and okay.
I was also very reassured, when I’d see news stories about mentally ill people harming others, that my mom does everything in her power to get her cycles under control. It made me feel safe and serves as an excellent model in case I had turned out or will turn out to have some of the same issues. I now don’t see it as something to be ashamed of, and I know what signs to look for and then what actions to take if I turn out to have the same problems.
Of course, there are some rocky aspects to it. It is tricky to know what details to reveal at what age, and if ever. I remember getting a lot of information I wasn’t able to handle yet around age 8 or 9, in the thick of the divorce being finalized, and they were things my mom would have been better off sharing with her therapist or a close friend. I also remember her telling me around age 12 that she would sometimes think about killing herself but that I was one of the main reasons she didn’t. That’s powerful, but also a lot to bear.
The kids also may not understand when and where it is appropriate to reveal the information. I felt pretty bad when I mentioned it at elementary school, and then my mom got upset with me, but it’s pretty understandable to not want certain other parents or teachers to know. So at some point you will have to sit them down and tell them where it is and isn’t okay to mention that mommy or daddy has bipolar disorder. That’s tricky to do without touching on the shame aspect, though, so I would recommend having a professional guide you through that process.
I would say in general, let your kids know that mental illness is present, that that’s okay (especially if they turn out to have it too), and to dispel scary myths they might hear at school or on the news. Let them know that it’s not their fault, that you love them, and that if they have feelings they can’t process they can come to you to talk about them. But let them ask their own questions as they want more information. Stay in tune with their reactions as best you can, so you know when to back off from dropping a bomb like talking about suicide until they’re ready. Maybe they won’t ever be for some things. But it comes back to the shame aspect. If that’s minimized, hopefully they will feel comfortable enough to ask for information if they want it.
I hope that helps. I am not a professional; I’ve just been in the kids’ situation, and that’s my own personal take on it. Thanks for reading and best of luck!